With Indian Politics, the Bad Gets Worse
'Shameful' Vote in Parliament Highlights Extent of Government Corruption

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 24, 2008

NEW DELHI, July 23 -- There were backroom deals. There were wads of cash waved about as alleged evidence of bribery. There were six lawmakers on hand who had just been sprung from jail so they could cast their ballots.

So it went on the floor of India's Parliament this week during a historic vote on whether to back the government and its controversial nuclear deal with the United States.

Even by Indian standards, it was bad. Members of Parliament were throwing money on the floor, asserting they had been paid off by the ruling Congress party to support a measure of confidence in the government.

"It's stupefying. And as an Indian, it's shameful," said Jagdeep Chhokar, a founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi watchdog group that tracks criminality in India's Parliament. "We have been fighting criminals ruling the roost for a long time. This just happened to be a stark display for the world to see."

It was also a reminder to the rest of the world that Indian politics -- seen here as the fast track to wealth -- is a no-holds-barred affair.

The problems are many. India's public campaign-finance laws are not enforced, and candidates are regularly backed by donors and corporations that expect favors in return. It's a self-perpetuating cycle of corruption that has carried over since the days of the British Raj, when politicians and bureaucrats expected under-the-table payments.

Today, Indians complain that the culture of corruption exists at all levels of government. It's certainly the case in high office. Nearly a fourth of the 540 Parliament members face criminal charges, including human trafficking, immigration rackets, embezzlement, rape and even murder, according to Chhokar's group.

To many Indians, recruiting convicted lawmakers for Tuesday's vote seemed particularly egregious. Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, enlisted the support of a former cabinet minister serving a life sentence for murder, and the minister's son was allegedly promised a cushy posting as deputy chief minister in the mineral-rich state of Jharkhand, according to several media reports.

Such public scrutiny is more common than ever in India, given the proliferation of newspapers and television news shows across the country. Despite the attention, though, public outrage with malfeasance has been relatively mild.

On Wednesday, under a headline screaming "Shame," the Hindustan Times published a survey that found that 63 percent of those interviewed did not think the recent allegations of corruption would worsen the reputation of politicians.

Few dispute that corruption has stalled development in India. Bribery has made it all the more difficult to bolster a flagging infrastructure and feed a country with more malnourished children than any other in the world. Reports surfaced this week that politicians had allegedly siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars from a $2 billion program to feed schoolchildren.

Many ordinary Indians feel forced to follow suit with small-scale corruption of their own: paying bribes to guarantee their children admission to elite private schools, paying off traffic police to avoid fines, paying government officials to get a job.

A 2007 survey by Transparency International India found that the nation's poor had paid about $206 million for public services.

Still, for all the expectations of corruption, Tuesday's developments were shocking.

"What happened in Parliament is a utter disgrace," said R.H. Tahiliani, chairman of the New Delhi branch of Transparency International. "But here the citizen is the victim. He pays to gain services that he is entitled to. The parliamentary dignitaries should set far better examples."

On Wednesday, several political parties announced an alliance to oppose the government. At a meeting, Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state -- she is also under investigation for corruption -- accused the government of "murdering democracy."

L.K. Advani, the leader of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, told reporters the government will soon fall after such public skulduggery.

"The whole thing is so scandalous. It reeks of muck. The scam will affect India's robust image as a democracy," Advani said. "The common people will soon want to give the government a holiday.

The accusations have served to blemish the once-unsoiled reputation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Singh, an economist, acknowledged that he is "extremely sad" at the allegations. He has sworn that his Congress party will cooperate in any inquiry into the allegations.

In New Delhi cafes, Indians gathered around televisions said in interviews that they enjoyed the political spectacle -- it was sheer soap opera, after all. Still, they were starting to notice that, with inflation at record highs here, all the political bickering may well be a poor use of time.

Achar Thirumala Chari, 46, a manager of a hotel, had had enough.

"I wish they used the same passion to actually solve poverty," Chari said as he watched the news on a hot afternoon. "Meanwhile, we waste time and, in this case, more and more money."

Special correspondent Ria Sen contributed to this report.

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